Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf

on September 23, 2021

Thanks to Balladeer’s Blog, I became aware of another Victorian Gothic horror penny dreadful, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. It was written by George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-1879) and serialized in Reynold’s Miscellany between November 6, 1846 and July 24, 1847. Later, it was published in novel form by Hurst & Company Publishers, New York. During his lifetime, G.M. Reynolds was considered the “Master of the Penny Dreadful” and as popular as Charles Dickens. Few people have heard of him, nowadays. Yet, his werewolf story was one of the first to be written in England.

EXCERPT:

WAGNER, THE WEHR-WOLF.

By GEORGE W. M. REYNOLDS.

NEW YORK
HURST & COMPANY
Publishers

PART I.

PROLOGUE.

It was the month of January, 1516.

The night was dark and tempestuous; the thunder growled around; the lightning flashed at short intervals: and the wind swept furiously along in sudden and fitful gusts.

The streams of the great Black Forest of Germany babbled in playful melody no more, but rushed on with deafening din, mingling their torrent roar with the wild creaking of the huge oaks, the rustling of the firs, the howling of the affrighted wolves, and the hollow voices of the storm.

The dense black clouds were driving restlessly athwart the sky; and when the vivid lightning gleamed forth with rapid and eccentric glare, it seemed as if the dark jaws of some hideous monster, floating high above, opened to vomit flame.

And as the abrupt but furious gusts of wind swept through the forest, they raised strange echoes—as if the impervious mazes of that mighty wood were the abode of hideous fiends and evil spirits, who responded in shrieks, moans, and lamentations to the fearful din of the tempest.

It was, indeed, an appalling night!

An old—old man sat in his cottage on the verge of the Black Forest.

He had numbered ninety years; his head was completely bald—his mouth was toothless—his long beard was white as snow, and his limbs were feeble and trembling.

He was alone in the world; his wife, his children, his grandchildren, all his relations, in fine, save one, had preceded him on that long, last voyage, from which no traveler returns.

And that one was a grand-daughter, a beauteous girl of sixteen, who had hitherto been his solace and his comfort, but who had suddenly disappeared—he knew not how—a few days previously  to the time when we discover him seated thus lonely in his poor cottage.

But perhaps she also was dead! An accident might have snatched her away from him, and sent her spirit to join those of her father and mother, her sisters and her brothers, whom a terrible pestilence—the Black Death—hurried to the tomb a few years before.

No: the old man could not believe that his darling granddaughter was no more—for he had sought her throughout the neighboring district of the Black Forest, and not a trace of her was to be seen. Had she fallen down a precipice, or perished by the ruthless murderer’s hand, he would have discovered her mangled corpse: had she become the prey of the ravenous wolves, certain signs of her fate would have doubtless somewhere appeared.

The sad—the chilling conviction therefore, went to the old man’s heart, that the only being left to solace him on earth, had deserted him; and his spirit was bowed down in despair.

Who now would prepare his food, while he tended his little flock? who was there to collect the dry branches in the forest, for the winter’s fuel, while the aged shepherd watched a few sheep that he possessed? who would now spin him warm clothing to protect his weak and trembling limbs?

“Oh! Agnes,” he murmured, in a tone indicative of a breaking heart, “why couldst thou have thus abandoned me? Didst thou quit the old man to follow some youthful lover, who will buoy thee up with bright hopes, and then deceive thee? O Agnes—my darling! hast thou left me to perish without a soul to close my eyes?”

It was painful how that ancient shepherd wept.

Suddenly a loud knock at the door of the cottage aroused him from his painful reverie; and he hastened, as fast as his trembling limbs would permit him, to answer the summons.

He opened the door; and a tall man, apparently about forty years of age, entered the humble dwelling. His light hair would have been magnificent indeed, were it not sorely neglected; his blue eyes were naturally fine and intelligent, but fearful now to meet, so wild and wandering were their glances: his form was tall and admirably symmetrical, but prematurely bowed by the weight of sorrow, and his attire was of costly material, but indicative of inattention even more than it was travel-soiled.

The old man closed the door, and courteously drew a stool near the fire for the stranger who had sought in his cottage a refuge against the fury of the storm.

He also placed food before him; but the stranger touched it not—horror and dismay appearing to have taken possession of his soul.

Suddenly the thunder which had hitherto growled at a distance, burst above the humble abode; and the wind swept by with so violent a gust, that it shook the little tenement to its foundation, and filled the neighboring forest with strange, unearthly noises.

 Then the countenance of the stranger expressed such ineffable horror, amounting to a fearful agony, that the old man was alarmed, and stretched out his hand to grasp a crucifix that hung over the chimney-piece; but his mysterious guest made a forbidding sign of so much earnestness mingled with such proud authority, that the aged shepherd sank back into his seat without touching the sacred symbol.

The roar of the thunder past—the shrieking, whistling, gushing wind became temporarily lulled into low moans and subdued lamentations, amid the mazes of the Black Forest; and the stranger grew more composed.

“Dost thou tremble at the storm?” inquired the old man.

“I am unhappy,” was the evasive and somewhat impatient reply. “Seek not to know more of me—beware how you question me. But you, old man, are not happy! The traces of care seem to mingle with the wrinkles of age upon your brow!”

The shepherd narrated, in brief and touching terms, the unaccountable disappearance of his much-beloved granddaughter Agnes.

The stranger listened abstractedly at first; but afterward he appeared to reflect profoundly for several minutes.

“Your lot is wretched, old man,” said he at length: “if you live a few years longer, that period must be passed in solitude and cheerlessness:—if you suddenly fall ill you must die the lingering death of famine, without a soul to place a morsel of food, or the cooling cup to your lips; and when you shall be no more, who will follow you to the grave? There are no habitations nigh; the nearest village is half-a-day’s journey distant; and ere the peasants of that hamlet, or some passing traveler, might discover that the inmate of this hut had breathed his last, the wolves from the forest would have entered and mangled your corpse.”

“Talk not thus!” cried the old man, with a visible shudder; then darting a half-terrified, half-curious glance at his guest, he said, “but who are you that speak in this awful strain—this warning voice?”

Again the thunder rolled, with crashing sound, above the cottage; and once more the wind swept by, laden, as it seemed, with the shrieks and groans of human beings in the agonies of death.

The stranger maintained a certain degree of composure only by means of a desperate effort, but he could not altogether subdue a wild flashing of the eyes and a ghastly change of the countenance—signs of a profoundly felt terror.

“Again I say, ask me not who I am!” he exclaimed, when the thunder and the gust had passed. “My soul recoils from the bare idea of pronouncing my own accursed name! But—unhappy as you see me—crushed, overwhelmed with deep affliction as you behold me—anxious, but unable to repent for the past as I am, and filled with appalling dread for the future as I now proclaim myself to be, still is my power far, far beyond that limit which hems mortal energies within so small a sphere. Speak, old man—wouldst thou change thy condition?  For to me—and to me alone of all human beings—belongs the means of giving thee new life—of bestowing upon thee the vigor of youth, of rendering that stooping form upright and strong, of restoring fire to those glazing eyes, and beauty to that wrinkled, sunken, withered countenance—of endowing thee, in a word, with a fresh tenure of existence and making that existence sweet by the aid of treasures so vast that no extravagance can dissipate them!”

A strong though indefinite dread assailed the old man as this astounding proffer was rapidly opened, in all its alluring details, to his mind;—and various images of terror presented themselves to his imagination;—but these feelings were almost immediately dominated by a wild and ardent hope, which became the more attractive and exciting in proportion as a rapid glance at his helpless, wretched, deserted condition led him to survey the contrast between what he then was, and what, if the stranger spoke truly, he might so soon become.

The stranger saw that he had made the desired impression; and he continued thus:

“Give but your assent, old man, and not only will I render thee young, handsome, and wealthy; but I will endow thy mind with an intelligence to match that proud position. Thou shalt go forth into the world to enjoy all those pleasures, those delights, and those luxuries, the names of which are even now scarcely known to thee!”

“And what is the price of this glorious boon?” asked the old man, trembling with mingled joy and terror through every limb.

“There are two conditions,” answered the stranger, in a low, mysterious tone. “The first is, that you become the companion of my wanderings for one year and a half from the present time, until the hour of sunset, on the 30th of July, 1517, when we must part forever, you to go whithersoever your inclinations may guide you, and I—— But of that, no matter!” he added, hastily, with a sudden motion as if of deep mental agony, and with wildly flashing eyes.

The old man shrank back in dismay from his mysterious guest: the thunder rolled again, the rude gust swept fiercely by, the dark forest rustled awfully, and the stranger’s torturing feelings were evidently prolonged by the voices of the storm.

A pause ensued; and the silence was at length broken by the old man, who said, in a hollow and tremulous tone, “To the first condition I would willingly accede. But the second?”

“That you prey upon the human race, whom I hate; because of all the world I alone am so deeply, so terribly accurst!” was the ominously fearful yet only dimly significant reply.

The old man shook his head, scarcely comprehending the words of his guest, and yet daring not to ask to be more enlightened.

“Listen!” said the stranger, in a hasty but impressive voice: “I require a companion, one who has no human ties, and who still ministers to my caprices,—who will devote himself wholly and solely to watch me in my dark hours, and endeavor to recall me  back to enjoyment and pleasure, who, when he shall be acquainted with my power, will devise new means in which to exercise it, for the purpose of conjuring up those scenes of enchantment and delight that may for a season win me away from thought. Such a companion do I need for a period of one year and a half; and you are, of all men, the best suited to my design. But the Spirit whom I must invoke to effect the promised change in thee, and by whose aid you can be given back to youth and comeliness, will demand some fearful sacrifice at your hands. And the nature of that sacrifice—the nature of the condition to be imposed—I can well divine!”

“Name the sacrifice—name the condition!” cried the old man, eagerly. “I am so miserable—so spirit-broken—so totally without hope in this world, that I greedily long to enter upon that new existence which you promised me! Say, then, what is the condition?”

“That you prey upon the human race, whom he hates as well as I,” answered the stranger.

“Again these awful words!” ejaculated the old man, casting trembling glances around him.

“Yes—again those words,” echoed the mysterious guest, looking with his fierce burning eyes into the glazed orbs of the aged shepherd. “And now learn their import!” he continued, in a solemn tone. “Knowest thou not that there is a belief in many parts of our native land that at particular seasons certain doomed men throw off the human shape and take that of ravenous wolves?”

“Oh, yes—yes—I have indeed heard of those strange legends in which the Wehr-Wolf is represented in such appalling colors!” exclaimed the old man, a terrible suspicion crossing his mind.

“’Tis said that at sunset on the last day of every month the mortal, to whom belongs the destiny of the Wehr-Wolf, must exchange his natural form for that of the savage animal; in which horrible shape he must remain until the moment when the morrow’s sun dawns upon the earth.”

“The legend that told thee this spoke truly,” said the stranger. “And now dost thou comprehend the condition which must be imposed upon thee?”

“I do—I do!” murmured the old man with a fearful shudder. “But he who accepts that condition makes a compact with the evil one, and thereby endangers his immortal soul!”

“Not so,” was the reply. “There is naught involved in this condition which—— But hesitate not,” added the stranger, hastily: “I have no time to waste in bandying words. Consider all I offer you: in another hour you shall be another man!”

“I accept the boon—and on the conditions stipulated!” exclaimed the shepherd.

“’Tis well, Wagner——”

“What! you know my name!” cried the old man. “And yet, meseems, I did not mention it to thee.”

“Canst thou not already perceive that I am no common mortal?” demanded the stranger, bitterly. “And who I am, and  whence I derive my power, all shall be revealed to thee so soon as the bond is formed that must link us for eighteen months together! In the meantime, await me here!”

And the mysterious stranger quitted the cottage abruptly, and plunged into the depths of the Black Forest.

One hour elapsed ere he returned—one mortal hour, during which Wagner sat bowed over his miserably scanty fire, dreaming of pleasure, youth, riches, and enjoyment; converting, in imagination, the myriad sparks which shone upon the extinguishing embers into piles of gold, and allowing his now uncurbed fancy to change the one single room of the wretched hovel into a splendid saloon, surrounded by resplendent mirrors and costly hangings, while the untasted fare for the stranger on the rude fir-table, became transformed, in his idea, into a magnificent banquet laid out, on a board glittering with plate, lustrous with innumerable lamps, and surrounded by an atmosphere fragrant with the most exquisite perfumes.

The return of the stranger awoke the old man from his charming dream, during which he had never once thought of the conditions whereby he was to purchase the complete realization of the vision.

“Oh! what a glorious reverie you have dissipated!” exclaimed Wagner. “Fulfill but one tenth part of that delightful dream——”

“I will fulfill it all!” interrupted the stranger: then, producing a small vial from the bosom of his doublet, he said, “Drink!”

The old man seized the bottle, and speedily drained it to the dregs.

He immediately fell back upon the seat, in a state of complete lethargy.

But it lasted not for many minutes; and when he awoke again, he experienced new and extraordinary sensations. His limbs were vigorous, his form was upright as an arrow; his eyes, for many years dim and failing, seemed gifted with the sight of an eagle, his head was warm with a natural covering; not a wrinkle remained upon his brow nor on his cheeks; and, as he smiled with mingled wonderment and delight, the parting lips revealed a set of brilliant teeth. And it seemed, too, as if by one magic touch the long fading tree of his intellect had suddenly burst into full foliage, and every cell of his brain was instantaneously stored with an amount of knowledge, the accumulation of which stunned him for an instant, and in the next appeared as familiar to him as if he had never been without it.

“Oh! great and powerful being, whomsoever thou art,” exclaimed Wagner, in the full, melodious voice of a young man of twenty-one, “how can I manifest to thee my deep, my boundless gratitude for this boon which thou hast conferred upon me!”

“By thinking no more of thy lost grand-child Agnes, but by preparing to follow me whither I shall now lead thee,” replied the stranger.

“Command me: I am ready to obey in all things,” cried Wagner. “But one word ere we set forth—who art thou, wondrous man?”

 “Henceforth I have no secrets from thee, Wagner,” was the answer, while the stranger’s eyes gleamed with unearthly luster; then, bending forward, he whispered a few words in the other’s ear.

Wagner started with a cold and fearful shudder as if at some appalling announcement; but he uttered not a word of reply—for his master beckoned him imperiously away from the humble cottage.

(To continue reading Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf, the book can be purchased on Amazon or downloaded for free at Project Gutenberg.)

Dawn Pisturino

September 21, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.


2 responses to “Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf

  1. balladeer says:

    You’re very kind to give me that shoutout! I appreciate it!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: